Friday, January 29, 2016

Worshipping the Moon. The Mid Autumn Festival.

Chang-e flying to the moon.
(Painting by Ren Shuai Ying (任率英), 1955.
Licensed under Public Domain.)
The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Han calendar - essentially the night of a full moon - which falls near the Autumnal Equinox (on a day between September 8 and October 7 on the Gregorian calendar).  In 2016, the 15th day of the eighth month of the Han calendar falls on September 15th of the Gregorian Calendar.

Chuseok, the Korean autumn harvest festival, is also held on the same day.  While I could have stayed back in Korea to experience how Koreans celebrate the moon, I'm choosing to head to Hong Kong instead.

For Chinese, the Mid-Autumn festival is second in popularity to the Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year.  It's a big deal and I couldn't imagine being so close to Hong Kong and not going there to celebrate it!  I could have gone to mainland China but as a Chinese of Cantonese descent, Hong Kong is the place for me.  I've not celebrated the festival since I was a child growing up in Malaysia and am thrilled to get to experience it as an adult! 

The Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival dates back over 3,000 years, to moon worshiping in the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). Ancient Chinese emperors worshiped the harvest moon at Mid-Autumn, as they believed that the practice would bring them a plentiful harvest the next year.  At it's heart, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival.

The festival is intricately linked to the legend of Chang'e (or Chang-o) who is the mythical Moon Goddess of Immortality and her husband, an archer named Yi. There are many tales about Chang'e but at least two that lay claim as the one behind the origin of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

As the first story goes, in the very distant past, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor were transformed into ten suns, which rose in the heavens and scorched the earth, thus causing hardship for the people. The archer Yi (Houyi) shot down nine of them, leaving just one sun to provide light. An immortal admired Yi's actions and Yi was given the elixir of immortality as a reward. He did not consume the elixir straight away as he did not want to leave Chang'e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang'e keep the elixir.  His apprentice, Fengmeng knew of this secret.

So, on the fifteenth day of the eight month, when Yi went hunting, Fengmeng broke into Yi's house and tried to force Chang'e to give him the valuable elixir.  She refused and drank it herself. Chang'e then flew upwards towards the heavens, choosing the moon as her residence. Yi discovered what had happened and felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang'e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about the sacrifices and out of sympathy for Chang'e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.

Another version of the same tale has it that after Yi shot down nine of the ten suns, he was pronounced king by the grateful people. However, he soon became a conceited and tyrannical ruler. He asked for the elixir from Xiwangmu so he could live as an immortal. But his wife, Chang'e stole the elixir on the fifteenth of August because she did not want the cruel king to live for eternity. Yi was so angry when he discovered that Chang'e had taken the elixir that he shot at his wife as she flew toward the moon, though he missed. Chang'e became the spirit of the moon and Yi  died soon after, overcome with great anger. Thereafter, people offered a sacrifice to Chang'e on the Mid Autumn day to commemorate Chang'e's action.

The custom of emperors offering sacrifices to the moon began during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045 - 770 BC).  By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), moon worship was officially celebrated as a traditional festival - appreciation of the moon had spread beyond Chinese royalty and rich merchants to common citizens.   It then became an established festival during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), and has become second in popularity to the Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year) since the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties.

In ancient times, the festival was a time to enjoy the successful reaping of rice and wheat with food offerings made in honor of the moon. Today, the festival is a day to spend with family, to make *sacrificial* offerings include fruits, snacks, incense, and to eat the iconic mooncakes.

Mooncakes. Making and sharing mooncakes is one of the hallmark traditions of the Mid Autumn Festival.

Mooncakes are traditionally round shaped Chinese pastries, which is made of wheat flour and contain a sweet stuffing that is traditionally made from lotus seed paste.

In Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and unity. Thus, the sharing and eating of round mooncakes among family members during the week of the festival signify the completeness and unity of families.  However, in these modern times, mooncakes can come in the shape of a square.

Mooncake.
(Photo by Mk2010. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.)

As a symbol of family unity, a mooncake is traditionally cut into as many pieces as there are members of the family. Each family member is given a piece to eat, accompanied by a cup of tea.  For the non- traditional mooncake lover like me, I just eat the whole cake by myself - no sharing :-)

In ancient times the most senior member of the household had the *honor* of making the mooncakes.  In modern times, making mooncakes at home has given way to the more popular custom of exchanging mooncakes as a gift between family and friends to convey their best wishes and to maintain familial unity.

The tradition of eating mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn began in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), a dynasty ruled by the Mongols.

Mooncakes supposedly commemorate the uprising, by the Han people, against the Mongols.  The story goes that the Hans wanted to overthrow the Mongols but they had no way to inform every Han of the uprising without being discovered by the Mongols.

So, the military counselor of the Han people’s resistance army came up with a strategy that made use of mooncakes.  The counselor asked his soldiers to spread the rumor that there would be a serious disease in winter and eating mooncakes was the only way to cure the disease. Then he asked soldiers to write "uprising, at the night of Mid-Autumn Festival" on slips of paper, put them in mooncakes, then sell them to the common Han people.

When the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival came, a huge uprising broke out - the Han had gotten the word! From then on, people ate mooncakes, during the Mid-Autumn Festival to commemorate the uprising.

Mid Autumn Lanterns for sale in Hong Kong.
(Photo by by Tiamyaium - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.)
Lanterns.  A notable part of celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival is the carrying of brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, or floating sky lanterns. Another tradition involving lanterns is to write riddles on them and have other people try to guess the answers

It is difficult to discern the original purpose of lanterns in connection to the festival, but it is certain that lanterns were not used in conjunction with moon-worship prior to the Tang Dynasty.  Traditionally, the lantern has been used to symbolize fertility, and functioned mainly as a toy and decoration. But today, the lantern has come to symbolize the festival itself.  In the old days, lanterns were made in the image of natural things, myths, and local cultures. Over time, a greater variety of lanterns could be found as local cultures became influenced by their neighbors.

The night lights of the Mid Autumn Festival in Victoria Park, Hong Kong.
(Photo by Mk2010. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.)

Mid Autumn Festival lanterns by day are colorful but lit up, with candles, at night, they are mesmerizing.  I can vividly remember that as a child, I would parade around with my lit lantern.  It was so much fun!

Festival Foods.  The best part about any festival are the special dishes that you get to eat.  In the case of the Mid-Autumn festival, the star of the show is the mooncake but there are other food items to be eaten in honor of the celebration.  For the Chinese, these include pumpkin, taro, lotus root, duck, river snails, crab, lotus root, watermelon,  pear, and osmanthus cake.  Each item brings symbolic meaning to the celebration.

In Hong Kong, the Mid Autumn Festival celebrations will begin before Sept 15th and will go through to the end of the month.  There will be events both during the day and the night.  Several of the more colorful events will be held more towards the end of the month. Unfortunately, I don't know that I will be around for those.  I'm going to see if I can adjust some dates to spend time in mainland China and arrive into Hong Kong a little later in the month.  I'll see how it goes.